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Historical Fiction: You Be the Editor

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 01, 2013

This is a piece of historical fiction published in the Relief Society Magazine, December 1952. It’s a sweet story, and I don’t want to mock it or have our discussion turn mean-spirited, but only to use it as an exercise in thinking like an historian.

Put yourself in the position of a magazine editor to whom this story was submitted. If you were interested in historical accuracy, what would you correct? or, if you’re not certain what the right answer is, what would you want to check out before you published the story?

“Under Thy Protecting Care”

By Angelyn W. Wadley

Mary Ann leaned back against the slats that formed the sides of the railroad car and tried to shift her weary body into a more comfortable position. The wind, blowing through the open car into her eyes, made her feel sleepy. In spite of the bumping of the train, perhaps she could get a little nap, she thought.

It was good to be going again. This was the fourth time the party of English emigrants had changed trains since they had left the steamer which had brought them from New York harbor, up the Hudson River to Albany. Like the others, this was a car built for cattle, but it was a better one than the others had been. At least the sides felt secure enough to lean on and the straw on the floor was clean and dry enough to sit on. It wasn’t comfortable, of course. Cinders from the engine rained down on them, and the fine straw blew up in their faces, but who expected comfort on a trip like this? Just getting there was what counted.

The railroad authorities had been reluctant to let this group of nearly a thousand Latter-day Saint converts travel at all on freight trains – entirely contrary to policy, they had said. But finally they had agreed and most of the group were happy to put up with discomfort since they had no money to spare for luxury travel. Nevertheless, the delays had been wearing. There had been engine trouble, long waits for trains, and once some cars had been derailed, but fortunately no one was hurt. Then at Quincy they waited two nights and one day for another train, with no place to go but the station yard. The women had taken advantage of the day to wash clothes in the river. A heavy wind the second night made it impossible to sleep out in the open, so they spent the entire night huddled close to the station. Since they were not traveling first class, they were not admitted inside. At five in the morning they had started again but twelve miles out they found a bridge damaged by the rebel army (for this was July 1864, near the close of the Civil War). This time they had to wait all day, and another night they camped in the woods while the bridge was repaired.

So it was no wonder they all rejoiced to be moving again. With good luck now, this train would carry them to the Missouri river – the end of the railroad and the beginning of the wagon trail across the plains to Utah.

That would be the bad part of the trip. The teams and wagons sent to meet them would be heavily loaded with supplies being freighted to Utah and the emigrants’ luggage. Mary Ann well knew that she and all others who were strong enough would be expected to walk.

Mary Ann was twenty-four years old, happy and healthy, and her faith was strong. Although she had left her family with sadness, knowing they might never be together again in this life, she had left with their love and blessing and the conviction that she was doing right, and she felt a thrill of triumph as each threatening obstacle was overcome. She wondered if someday in the future, she and perhaps others, might read the diary she was keeping and look back on this trip as a great adventure.

Her sleepy head nodded and bumped against the side of the car but she roused herself to join the conversation of the little group of special friends who were seated near her – Dorcus, Mima, Walter, and Alex, all young people like herself, making this momentous journey without others of their families.

A gust of wind brought another shower of sparks, and Mary Ann sat up and pinched them out with the rest of the passengers.

“Just imagine, we’re going thirty miles an hour!” Alex was holding his watch as he spoke. “I’ve been watching the mile posts. We’re traveling a mile a minute!”

Bouncing and rattling along with no top to shut out the wind, it seemed almost unbelievable speed to these young people of nearly a century ago, who, before this trip, had never traveled faster than a horse trots pulling a cart.

Suddenly there was a commotion! The thirty occupants of the car crowded up to the front. A cinder had set the straw on fire in the back corner. The man nearest tried to stamp it out, but the wind fanned the blaze until, in a few moments, it was out of control. Hastily they pushed the straw apart to make a bare space between the fire and the people, but before that was done the wooden side of the car was burning. The people in the car ahead and the one behind saw what had happened and began to shout, but there was no chance that they could be heard by the engineer above the roar of the train.

“I know what to do,” Alex shouted to Mary Ann, “Pray that I’ll succeed!”

He pushed to the front of the car and climbed to the top. While the frightened people watched, he swung himself to the next car, climbed down into it, pushed through the passengers to the front, and climbed to the next. There were eight cars ahead that he must cross before he could reach the engineer to have him stop the train. Meanwhile the fire was spreading. Could he possibly get there in time? Could he get there at all? One misstep would mean death to him and perhaps to all of those in the burning car. They waited through the long minutes breathlessly and prayerfully.

Mary Ann thought of that anxious night of the storm at sea when even the captain admitted they were in great danger. And that other time when the pirate ship with the black flag had come so near the sailors were afraid their ship would be attacked. On both occasions the saints had gathered on deck for prayer, and both times their lives had been preserved. This fire was a different kind of danger, but surely their kind Father in heaven would not desert them now. He would help Alex succeed in his difficult attempt.

Fervently Mary Ann’s lips whispered over and over the words that were a part of all her prayers. “Dear Father, keep us under thy protecting care.”

There was a breathless moment of uncertainty. Was the train slowing down, or did they just imagine it? Yes, it was – slower – slower – slower, and finally, with a jerk of the brakes, it stopped. Quickly the worried passengers climbed out over the sides and were sent ahead to crowd into the baggage car. There was no water available to fight the fire, so the train went on until they came to a switch track where the car, now all afire, was switched onto a siding. Before the trainload of converts was out of sight, the car was burned beyond repair, but the lives of this faithful group of saints had been spared once more to continue their journey with gratitude and rejoicing.



7 Comments »

  1. It sounds like a journal entry, with fictionalized transitions between entries. I almost suspect that the math error is a direct quote. I think I would ask about the diary or journal source, where it wa then located, what was its provenance?

    If it is a journal source, I’d leave it largely alone.

    If it is romantic imaginings, I’d ask for verification of the year of travel (the civil war reference), and correct the math error.

    Comment by Coffinberry — April 1, 2013 @ 10:01 am

  2. I would also ask for verification on the route taken by the train after Quincy. To my recollection there was only one incursion of Confederate activity north of the Iowa line in SE Iowa, and it wasn’t that year. I would expect the train route to have been to Burlington after Quincy, and that makes no sense to me at all.

    Comment by Coffinberry — April 1, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  3. 30 mph is not a mile a minute.

    Was a rail bridge damaged in July 1864 about 12 miles from Quincy?

    Were ships from England to New York attacked by pirate-flagged ships in 1864?

    Did large groups travel in cattle cars, against railroad policies?

    I’d also check with a rail expert whether the fire account would be plausible.

    Comment by HokieKate — April 1, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  4. I wasn’t sure anybody would tackle this — so glad you have, Coffinberry and HokieKate. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, though, that ideas come from two readers who often read the fiction.

    This reads to me like someone’s uninformed,romantic idea of what westward emigration was like, perhaps based, as Coffinberry suggests, on an authentic source, but with the gaps filled in by unskillful assumption and conjecture. We see that a lot in family histories where ancestors are assumed to have pulled handcarts because somebody said they “walked across the plains,” not realizing that virtually everybody did walk, but next to a wagon, not with a handcart. In this story, that’s where we see all the detail errors that HokieKate would question and verify.

    Lest this story mislead anyone, rail travel was as carefully planned and monitored by the elders accompanying emigrants across the plains as the ship travel was planned across the Atlantic. That is, not only did the LDS agents buy steamship tickets and plan for the safety and comfort of the traveling saints, they also arranged for rail travel, with an equal eye to safety and comfort — LDS business was too big a prize for the train companies to give us anything but the best, including placing LDS cars at the end of the train so that the Saints would not be disturbed by outsiders walking through their cars. We even changed which seaport we used from time to time according to the accommodations the connecting railroads would give; our business was that large. Every once in a while things went wrong, and Saints had to endure travel in cattle and freight cars for short distances — but I’m unaware of any Saints traveling in open cars like the ones in this story, only enclosed box cars without seats. Travel in bucket cars would be noteworthy and especially nasty, and I cannot conceive of an LDS travel agent agreeing to such accommodations for even a short stretch, much less the days covered by this story.

    So, good for you, our two blue-pencil-wielding editors!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2013 @ 11:03 am

  5. Ardis,

    There are elements in this story that read, though, like the emigration of Mennonites from what is now the Ukraine to central Kansas in 1874, including the sometimes-crowded use of cattle cars, and the relatively unceremonious dumping of them in central Kansas in the dead of winter. (I’ve mentioned before, I think, that those Mennonites adopted “Come Come Ye Saints” as a hymn telling their own tale.)

    I think that’s why I felt inclined to accept that maybe there was some element of personal history underlying this story.

    Thanks. This was fun.

    Comment by Coffinberry — April 1, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

  6. And you may be right — the original need not have been a Mormon story, even. But if this is based on a true Mormon account, heaven save the railroad company from the wrath of the Mormon emigrant agent! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  7. Fun. The others beat me to it, but the open cars with straw on the floor didn’t sound right, as that obviously would be a problem with sparks. I doubt that a railroad would be allowing a steam locomotive at this time to pull open cars with loose straw in the bottom.

    Also, it is likely that any pirates in 1864 in the Northern Atlantic would have been Union privateers harassing shipping bound for the South. The whole pirate thing was more of an issue a century or two earlier, and usually in warmer climates.

    Comment by kevinf — April 1, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

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